Teaching Opinion

Schools Are Democracy Sites, Not Chain Stores

By Deborah Meier — December 17, 2015 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

If democracy is in peril, another course on civics won’t help. We agree. I think we also agree that they must be transformed into active democratic sites, immersed in the dilemmas of democracy. At the very least among its adults! They must become membership organizations, not chain stores built on consumer-client relationships.

But we all have precious little experience being members to build on—except the most trivial type of membership (“send us your dues”). It’s not family life we’re trying to recreate, but something even harder: a community of, by, and for its members, which also keeps an eye out for its impact on other communities. It doesn’t happen just by wishing it were so, and it probably is always “in progress,” revising itself as it goes.

There will probably always be arguments—hurrah—about the of, by, and for. Where does one draw the line? Does every family get just one vote? Do students—regardless of age—have a vote? Does the kitchen staff vote on curriculum? These will be contentious and frequently revised. No two communities may draw up the same “constitution"—although I do believe elected state and federal representatives have an obligation to set some non-negotiables. Only experience will tell us, however, whether our practices go sufficiently deep into building a culture of mutual respect that can be witnessed being practiced in all the nooks and crannies of the school.

As one starts to build such a community one assumes a very critical—if minimal—trust. (This is where choice becomes attractive.) However, as trust grows, we still have to fall back on an “as if.” “As if” we assumed we are all doing our best. Sometimes it won’t seem realistic. But the closer it gets to being more than an “as if"—the better democracy works. Racism and class elitism are two examples of why it often becomes a shadow of its real self.

A society like ours with vast inequalities of power has trouble even imagining what a full democracy might entail. It takes a pretty big leap of faith to imagine that our self-interests are sufficiently mutual. It also makes homogeneity—schools serving different populations of one sort or another—attractive. One can’t set oneself up for perfection, but there comes a time when the gap between reality and rhetoric becomes too wide and the institution needs a “revolution.” That’s the way I’m increasingly feeling about American democracy. We’ve come a long way on paper, but the tendency to revert to deeply ingrained inequalities is immense, like gravity.

We’ve got to keep fighting for democratic norms in the block we live on, our workplaces, and on and on. Clearly this is not a job that can be tackled just in schooling. It presumes similar efforts in many arenas. But I believe that until we tackle schooling we will always be going against the stream. Twelve and more years of schooling designed to inculcate thoroughly undemocratic daily norms have an impact. They build habits that are hard to abandon just because one becomes 18.

I’m hoping for a conversation that might lead to greater agreement about what kind of democratic processes entitle a school to public funding. Not a list of practices, however, that must be carried out everywhere the same way. God forbid. Some may try choice, some may not. (Choice can exist along with restrictions on its use.) Ditto for how the curriculum is organized, the mixing of ages and grades, the details of due process for students, staff, and families, and on and on.

Name me a few you’d insist on, Harry (and friends). What’s your short list of what shouldn’t be allowed or what must be practiced in schools that rest on public resources—in the name of democracy?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.